By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Cracking Miami's private security market wasn't easy for Andrew Wilson. South Florida doesn't have as many Middle Eastern monarchs in need of a private security detail, and the ex-soldier didn't speak a lick of Spanish. But he did know a helluva lot about guns.
Wilson began teaching small groups how to use a handgun, charging $75 a session. Slowly but surely, he built up a loyal following. But his clients weren't just locals. Some were Latin American soldiers and security experts themselves, like Gerry, a Mexican martial arts instructor who took Wilson's courses during visits to Miami (Gerry asked New Times to withhold his surname out of concerns for his family's safety). When Gerry later began training police officers in León's Special Tactical Group (GET in Spanish), he suggested bringing in Wilson to teach them how to combat rising drug violence.
That's how Wilson ended up in Mexico on the most controversial mission of his career. He quickly decided harsh tactics would be needed on the squad of cocky cops. "We broke them in three days," Wilson says. "We did that by pushing them and pushing them and screaming at them."
And shooting at them. Videos Wilson posted on his website show the León officers storming the abandoned building in the desert and blasting targets with real bullets as fellow cops stand just inches away.
"We could never teach this stuff in the U.S.," Wilson says with a mixture of amusement and pride. "I'm very big on stress training and pushing people as much as possible. We're not going there and hurting them just for the sake of hurting them."
But hurt them he did. The most serious exercises involved teaching the Mexican cops how to operate more like an army while executing operations to take out the cartels that controlled the surrounding state of Guanajuato.
Wilson divided the cops into two teams. One would play the part of the narcos. The other would surveil and then ambush the compound where the narcos hid.
When Wilson caught the oblivious scouts by surprise, he ordered the team to drag their fellow cop to a foul-smelling black pit infested with rats. They lowered their captive headfirst into the darkness and waterboarded him. The man went into shock, but a medic was on hand to help. "When I was in the military, all that would be part of basic training," Wilson says. "It's not that extreme in my book, but it looks extreme."
Wilson and Gerry earned about $16,000 for three weeks of whipping the León officers into shape, but not everyone appreciated the lesson. Three weeks later, videos of the waterboarding session broke on the local news.
"Some of the guys that were pissed off at us, that had a hard time, leaked the videos to get back at us," Wilson says.
The scandal could not have happened at a more sensitive time for U.S.-Mexico relations. The countries' presidents, Bush and Felipe Calderón, had just signed a deal sending $1.5 billion south of the border to combat drug cartels. The Mexican media's message was clear: The gringos are teaching our already corrupt cops how to torture like at Abu Ghraib.
Risks Inc. was suddenly infamous. "Company That Led Training in Torture Techniques for Mexican Police Is Risks Incorporated of Miami, Florida," wrote Narco News. Like Blackwater, which had been thrown out of Iraq in 2007 after massacring innocent civilians, Wilson's small security company suddenly became a symbol for the excesses of all international security companies worldwide.
"It had to do with Mexican politics more than anything else," Wilson says. "The same weekend we were accused of this BS, 11 people were beheaded in Culiacán. Why wasn't that reported? Because we made an easy target."
John Walbridge Jr. might be Miami's most secretive man. The Vietnam veteran turned CIA spook spent years covering his tracks, first in the rainforests of Southeast Asia and then in agency operations across the Third World.
Today, however, as he slides into a seat at a quiet café in Buena Vista, he can't help but betray hints of the millions he's earned during his postgovernment career in private security. There's his silver BMW sedan, for starters, and the golden Citadel ring on his right hand. And then there is his elephant skin briefcase.
"If you look at the animal kingdom, you can learn a lot about security," says the sexagenarian with tanned skin, a boyishly handsome face, and a toothy smile. "The lion is not interested in looking good. He just wants to eat."
His company, Overseas Security and Strategic Information Inc. (OSSI), has made more than $100 million escorting dignitaries around Iraq and Afghanistan with assault rifles. Yet, like a lion lying low in the grass, Walbridge has remained largely out of sight.
Walbridge was destined by birth to be a soldier. His father, John Walbridge Sr., was in the U.S. Army. From 1957 to 1958, long before the Gulf of Tonkin and while Junior was still in elementary school, Walbridge Sr. was already in Vietnam as an adviser to South Vietnam's anti-communist government. It was a battle that his son would join nearly 20 years later.